I really admire Visual Concepts' tenacity. Year after year, they try to blow the doors off sports gaming with an amazing basketball sim—one that raises the bar and gets EA scrambling to keep up.
Of the Big Three sports sims—NBA 2K, Madden, and FIFA—NBA 2K is easily the most ambitious. It's reflected in features like the first ever MyGM Story Mode, as well as their push to introduce a PlayStation Home-like online hub called the Neighborhood. When it comes to sheer flash, NBA 2K simply can't be beat.
But there's a price to such ambition. Especially since this generation has started, NBA 2K has been beset by constant server problems and other glitches. It's the biggest and the most fully-featured, but it's definitely not the most polished. And there are lots of niggling problems that have been around for years now.
These flaws are most apparent in the version for the Nintendo Switch, which marks NBA 2K's debut on the platform (and hopefully a long, fruitful relationship to come). I opted to focus specifically on the Switch version this year in part because it's functionally identical to its brethren on the PC, Xbox One, and PS4—it even uses the same engine—and because I'm extremely interested to see how sports games hold up on the Switch.
Having now spent a bunch of time with the Switch version, I have to say that it carries with it a ton of promise. Unfortunately, it also has some glaring problems.
What's new in NBA 2K18
NBA 2K18 sets out to fix many of the irritations that were prevalent in last year's version. Practice is now optional, thank god, so you don't get penalized for ignoring the tedious reps in the gym. It's also much easier to grind out the all-important badges in MyCareer thanks to the XP you get from playing regular games.
As always, MyCareer is NBA 2K18's flagship mode—a massive online platform in which you rise up the ranks in the NBA. Your customizable avatar—an undrafted free agent from the streets named DJ—essentially walks on after a workout with the team of your choice, and from there begins heading down the road to superstardom.
This year's version is clearly geared around getting more people into online team play, which has become NBA 2K18's biggest (and most profitable) mode. The introduction of the Neighborhood adds a visual component to the traditional customization. It gets you used to seeing other players running down the street, and fully integrates all of the Pro-Am courts. When you're not in your team's arena, you're always a half-step away from playing an online pickup game.
This is convenient for people who care about Pro-Am; tedious for those who don't care. While it's touted as a fully explorable world, Neighborhood is mostly a series of interactive menus that require you to spend time hoofing it from location to location. Its main benefit is that it offers a more seamless sense of "being there," binding you closer to your avatar and making you want to spend more money to customize them.
Yes, microtransactions are still a big part of NBA 2K18, and they're more noticeable than ever with the introduction of Neighborhood. Virtual Currency governs everything from player progression to avatar clothing, and allows you to shortcut parts of MyGM to boot.
Frankly, I hate VC. It makes everything into a grind, forcing anyone who isn't willing to spend extra cash to hoard their points like precious gold. It also ties MyCareer to 2K's notoriously unreliable servers, hampering the Switch's main selling point—its portability.
If this year has hammered home anything for me, it's that as long as VC exists, NBA 2K is always going to be fundamentally flawed. And that's really too bad because there's a pretty amazing game underneath it all.
On the court, NBA 2K18 has never felt better. It's still one of the best-looking sports games around, with incredible commentary featuring guest appearances by the likes of Kevin Garnett, and a large number of dynamic broadcast bumpers. The action continues to be smooth and very faithful to basketball, the only blemish being that there are times when layups seem to defy the laws of physics in their refusal to roll in. It demands good timing and a keen understanding of the sport, and rewards you in turn.
But what really makes it stand apart is the way that it makes you feel like you're playing against actual NBA Stars. Guys like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James aren't just names in NBA 2K—they have their own quirks, animations, and playstyles. You can feel the difference when you're playing the perimeter happy Thunder versus the bruising Sixers. No other sports game gets this aspect quite as right as NBA 2K.
It also has one of the largest and most varied suite of franchise modes around. You can start at any point in the season; play through a round of the playoffs with the teams of your choice (including historical teams!), and even build your own team through expansion.
The coup de grace is a story-driven GM mode—the first of its kind in a sports game. While it feels cheap in comparison to MyCareer with its muppet-like character models and text-driven dialogue, it's an undeniable step forward for the genre. At the risk of spoiling it, I will say that I've never sympathized more for GMs who have been forced to work under "superfan" owners like Daniel Snyder. Even if you're controlling a successful team (like the Timberwolves!), you'll feel the pressure.
I really hope they build on this mode. More to the point, I hope the Madden guys steal this idea for themselves. It's the next logical step for franchise mode.
Frustrations aside, stuff like this makes NBA 2K18 really special, and is ultimately what keeps bringing me back. But man, it would be really nice if we could skip the cutscenes for a change.
But How Good is NBA 2K18 on the Nintendo Switch?
I was stunned the first time I fired up NBA 2K18 on the Switch. Not only did it look almost as good, it felt great, too. I could hardly feel the difference between 60fps and 30fps, even though I knew it was there. Slightly longer load times aside, I felt like we had a winner.
But then I started playing MyCareer, and oh man does this mode have problems on the Switch right now. Playing in handheld mode, I was stunned when locker room scenes consistently slowed to a crawl and the audio dropped out. It's still playable, but this problem is extremely noticeable when not docked, and it really hurts the overall presentation—a major problem given that I rarely play my Switch on the television.
Moreover, I've run into some of the same problems that have been reported on the Xbox One version, including hard lockups and the loss of my MyCareer player. At one point all of my players vanished, leaving the ball to bounce softly to the end of the court before crashing the game, resulting in jokes of a Switch-exclusive "rapture mode."
When it's working properly, NBA 2K18 on the Switch is a real treat. It's very much the kind of game where I can just spend hours rolling through MyGM over the course of a long flight. The Switch was practically made for games like these, where the action is dispensed in bite-sized and undeniably addictive chunks.
But as usual, microtransactions keep it from reaching its full potential. MyCareer is all but inaccessible when played offline, leaving behind a sad shell that removes all of the story aspects and leaves you to play through a basic NBA schedule. It would be absolutely amazing to play the story-driven MyCareer on the road—the mode where the gameplay truly sings—but the focus on VC makes that sadly impossible.
So if you're a basketball nut who is happy to focus on MyGM while leaving MyCareer for docked mode, I'd say NBA 2K18 is worth picking up. Glitches aside, it comes surprisingly close to matching the PS4/PC/Xbox One experiences, which is a hell of a feat on the part of Visual Concept's engineers. And on a game-to-game basis, it's an absolutely pleasure to play.
But like the series itself, it's also fundamentally flawed. And sadly, I don't see that changing any time soon.
After all these years, NBA 2K18 still doesn't let you skip MyCareer's cutscenes, resulting in a lot of boring downtime as you wait for Doc to finally shut up and give you a haircut. Load times are a bit long.
Multiple glitches in MyCareer mode mar the otherwise sterling audio. NBA 2K18's commentary is still the best in the business, seamlessly rolling with the twists and turns of the games without ever becoming repetitive.
The player models, arenas, pregame shows, and overall presentation offer some of the best graphics you will see on the Nintendo Switch. It looks stunningly good in handheld mode.
There's so much to love about NBA 2K18 on the Switch, but there's no denying that there are some major flaws here, especially in the flagship MyCareer mode. As much as I love NBA 2K's ambition in creating a full portable port, it's tough to wholeheartedly recommend in light of its persistent technical problems and other niggling flaws.